Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell sticks by his players, but he may be too loyal. Will that cost him his job? Quite possibly, if last night ended badly.
Steven Wright has been the most dependable starter that Farrell has had for the Red Sox this season. His ERA, heading into last night’s game, had him among the top four starters in the major leagues. He blanked the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for five straight innings; however, each of those innings had signs that Wright was going to need the hook earlier than usual. Instead, Farrell stayed with his starter, depending on him to get out of the frame if things got too hairy, even before the rain arrived.
After the Red Sox stretched their lead to 5-0, Christopher Smith of MassLive.com believes that the moisture on the ball should have been when Farrell should have had thoughts of pulling Wright: “Struggling to throw strikes and unable to find a good grip on his knuckleball, Wright turned to his 86 mph fastball. And C.J. Cron crushed it for a grand slam over the Green Monster to cut the Angels’ deficit to 5-4.” Smith also cites Lou Merloni‘s tweet about his disagreement with Farrell for leaving Wright on the mound in the rain, considering Wright’s last poor outing was a loss to the Houston Astros also in the rain.
Before one continues this line of questioning, the telling signs crept up on Wright even before the rain hit Boston. Even in the first inning, Wright didn’t seem like the shutdown king he had been for the last few months. After a single and a walk, with one out, Wright had a coach’s visit to the mound. He got out of it with a double play. Then, he was smacked around a bit in the second inning, allowing two singles and a long flyout before getting a grounder for another doubleplay. A flyout, a groundout, a double, and a walk in the third frame would have made anyone question whether Wright would ever get his second strikeout of the game. Fortunately, he got it to get out of that inning.
The fourth inning looked more like what typical knuckleballers get when they pitch. Two groundouts and a single that Brock Holt converted into an out at second base, as Angels’ C.J. Cron tried to stretch to a double, made Wright have a quick inning of badly hit pitches. However, the fifth inning turned much like the first three.
With two outs and a single, Wright threw a wild pitch with Angels’ Mike Trout at the plate, allowing the runner to advance to third. Fortunately for Wright, he got Trout to ground out, but if Farrell wasn’t already questioning how long Wright was going to last, he should at least have been thinking about a backup plan. Maybe Wright would have dominated the Angels the rest of the game, but they were hitting Wright pretty hard, regardless.
Nobody will ever really know Farrell’s mindset at the time, but the start of the sixth inning should have made his attention to the bullpen acute. Wright started with a double by Albert Pujols, followed by hitting Jefry Marte with a pitch. Rain or not, the second coach’s visit to the mound was followed by a walk to load the bases, suggesting major issues for Wright even before Cron’s mighty blast cleared them.
Forget the knuckleball for a second. If this were any other pitcher, would Farrell have done anything? Farrell’s loyalty to his players is well documented. Wright hasn’t allowed a run the entire game and has a chance to get out of the jam that he’s in. Based on previous experience, Farrell would likely have left any pitcher in the game in the same situation, no matter what the pitch. If the starter allowed a run, then Farrell would have likely taken him out, which he pretty much had to do when the grand slam happened.
Wright threw a fastball to Cron, which he blasted over the fence, because the rain gave him problems using the knuckleball grip. Smith reported Farrell saying, “He’s got a 5-0 shutout going obviously. At worst case scenario I think if he throws his knuckleball and misses with the pitch to walk in a run, [Matt] Barnes is in the game with that next hitter regardless. So 3-2 fastball, ends up costing him four runs. So that was the difference there.”
Smith also reported Wright agreeing with that assessment:
"“I didn’t want to walk him. My instincts don’t want to walk the guy. But I’ve got to think about it as a bigger perspective and the bigger picture, and just say, ‘Swallow the walk.’ Because what if I make a good pitch? That’s the thing. If I throw a good knuckleball, maybe it’s a 6-4-3 double play vs. the home run on a fastball. And it’s one of those things I’m going to be kicking myself for the next four days on that one pitch.”"
However, if one would have thought that Wright’s stuff wasn’t shaping up as well as it had been in previous starts, the situation may have been avoided, completely. Between how hard Wright was getting hit and the wild pitch in the previous inning, Barnes should have been ready to go into the game once Wright gave up the double to Pujols or right after he hit Marte.
The Red Sox had a very long bottom half of the fifth, between David Ortiz‘s solo home run, two singles, a double, an intentional walk, two coach’s visits, and a pitching change made by the Angels; there was no reason why Barnes would not have been already warmed up if Farrell had him up in the bullpen after Wright’s initial struggles.
There was no guarantee that Wright’s knuckleball would have had any movement in the rain against Cron if he threw it. All that may have happened is that Cron would have had a pitch look like a beach ball to drill even further over the fence. For Farrell to put the game completely on the difference between one knuckleball and the fastball that inevitably was punished, one can almost hear the proverbial bus tires compress over top of Wright as they roll over him.
There were many moments in the game where Farrell could have foreseen events happening and planned around them. Instead, out of loyalty for his starter, he left Wright in longer than he should have, even if it wasn’t raining. If it wasn’t for bailing on Wright in the media about that last pitch, one could see Farrell’s decisions, or lack thereof, to be a redeeming quality: at least he backed his pitcher, no matter what. That backing was short-lived when he said that Wright’s pitch choice was not what he wanted.
Either you have faith in your player or you don’t; you can’t pick and choose which parts of his game you back publicly. Farrell made the choice to go down with the ship by keeping Wright in the game after the bases were loaded, only to then throw himself a life preserver ring when it didn’t work out. At least the Red Sox still won the game, or else that comment would have turned into blaming his starter for the loss. Luckily for Farrell, Wright agrees about the pitch. With so much media attention being on Farrell’s job being on the line, the only people who may still have faith in him are his players. To turn on them would not be very wise at this juncture in his career, while he still has one.